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June 15, 2009

Monday with Mike: Toughest, easiest schedules

The Pac-10 plays a round-robin conference schedule, but the league discussed scrapping the round-robin format in favor of an eight-game schedule, which would have given member schools one more non-conference game.

Thankfully, league athletic directors last week decided to keep things the way they are.

The extra non-conference game likely would've meant another early season patsy for Pac-10 members. Instead, unlike most schools in other "Big Six" leagues, Pac-10 schools will have to be content with playing two or three weak non-conference foes instead of three or four (or five, as is the case for some Big East schools).

We bring this up because any discussions of "toughest" and "easiest" schedules have to have a non-conference component. After all, you don't get to choose your league games; the league office does that for you. But schools obviously get to choose their own non-conference games, and you'll see by our list of toughest and easiest schedules by league that teams that don't really test themselves in non-conference play almost always end up with a league's easiest schedule.

Virginia Tech: The Hokies edge Miami, which has the toughest opening four games in the nation. Virginia Tech has six home games, tied for the fewest in the league, and the Hokies play three bowl teams from last season in non-conference play, including two away from home; they open with Alabama in Atlanta and play at East Carolina which beat them last season on Nov. 5. There's also a road game against Georgia Tech. The good thing is that except for the game against the Yellow Jackets, the toughest conference games are at home.
N.C. State: There are eight home games the Wolfpack are one of just seven teams nationally with eight and two games against Football Championship Subdivision members. Five of the first six games are at home. Both of their tough non-conference games are at home. The toughest road game is the last one, on Nov. 21 against Virginia Tech.

Louisville: The Cardinals open with a game against Indiana State, which is one of the worst FCS programs in the nation. But that's it for easily winnable games. Three non-conference games are against bowl teams from a year ago: Kentucky, Utah and Southern Miss, with the first two on the road. The Cardinals also go on the road in conference play against Connecticut, Cincinnati, West Virginia and USF. Coach Steve Kragthorpe is on the hot seat, and this schedule won't help.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights play two FCS opponents; plus, they play Army and Florida International in non-conference play, and those are two of the weakest programs in the nation the past few seasons. Another big advantage: The toughest conference games Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, USF and West Virginia are at home. The toughest road game is either a trip to Connecticut or one to Maryland.

Illinois: The Fighting Illini have a lot to prove this season, but it could be tough given their schedule. Four of the first five games are against bowl teams from last season, including a back-to-back-to-back stretch against Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State. A potential saving grace: Only the Ohio State game is on the road. There are just six home games total, tied for the fewest in the league. They also close the season with two tough non-conference games, at Cincinnati and at home against Fresno State.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions should be embarrassed by their non-conference schedule. They play Akron, Syracuse, Temple and FCS member Eastern Illinois all at home. Indeed, they have eight home games overall and play six of their first seven at home. The toughest conference games, against Iowa and Ohio State, are at home. The toughest road game looks to be the regular-season finale against Michigan State, a team the Nittany Lions beat by 31 last season.

BIG 12
Oklahoma: The Sooners play three non-conference opponents that went to bowls last season, including two away from home (vs. BYU in Dallas and at Miami). They also play Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Texas Tech away from home. The Texas and Kansas games are back-to-back, and the Sooners also play Texas Tech and Oklahoma State (though that one is at home) back-to-back.
Texas A&M: The Aggies are expected to struggle this season, but the schedule isn't overly taxing. The Aggies play no non-conference foe that went to a bowl last season. In league play, their crossover games are against the three North Division teams that didn't go bowling last season. There are tough road games against Texas Tech and Oklahoma and there's a home game with Texas, but we're betting other league teams would trade for this schedule.

USC: The Trojans have six home games, tied for the fewest in the conference, and play two non-conference road games against bowl teams from last season (Ohio State and Notre Dame). The Trojans also play at California and Oregon, which look to be their two biggest challengers for the league title. There's a five-game stretch in the middle of the season in which the Trojans play four road games (first Cal, then Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State); the only home game in that stretch after Notre Dame and before Oregon is against Oregon State, which beat the Trojans last season. USC doesn't play home games on consecutive weekends until the final two games of the season.
UCLA: This is the toughest league in which to find an "easiest" schedule because there really aren't any that stand out. We're going with the Bruins, whose three non-conference games are against teams that didn't go to bowls last season; Tennessee is the only non-conference road game. In addition, UCLA gets Cal and Oregon at home.

Georgia: The Bulldogs have six home games, tied for fewest in the league. They open and close with tough non-conference games on the road (Oklahoma State is the opener and Georgia Tech the finale), and they also play Florida away from home, in Jacksonville. The flipside: The toughest conference road game is Tennessee. LSU, which plays Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss on the road and Florida at home, is the runner-up.
Kentucky: The Wildcats are the only SEC team that doesn't play a non-conference game against a team that went bowling last season. In addition, two of the three toughest conference games are at home (Florida and Alabama); the toughest road game is against Georgia. Florida, going for its third national title in four years, deserves mention, too; still, the Gators' two toughest games (LSU and Georgia) are away from Florida Field.

Vacate this
The NCAA last week slapped Alabama with a three-year probation for what it termed major violations because of the misuse of free textbooks by athletes in 16 sports, including football. It was the kind of slap that surprises and ticks off the recipient at first; then, they think about it and shrug it off as if it were nothing.

This was Alabama's third football probation in the past decade, and the NCAA's official release said the infractions committee "remains troubled by the scope of the violations in this instance and by the institution's recent history of infractions cases." The new case also reopens the five-year repeat violator window for Alabama, which means the school's repeat offender status will extend until 2014. The last time Alabama was "clean" in that regard? Try 1995.

So what was the football program's punishment for these major violations? Was there a TV ban? A loss of scholarships? Both? Nope. Instead, Alabama was ordered to "vacate" 21 wins in a three-year period (2005-07) and fined almost $44,000.

Vacating a win isn't the same as a forfeit; a team that lost to Alabama can't count what had been a loss as a win. It's just that Alabama now cannot count it as an "official" win.

I'm not here to argue that the punishment was just or unjust; I'm here to argue that vacating wins is one of the stupidest ideas the NCAA ever has come up with and since we're talking about the NCAA, that's a helluva lot of stupidity to wade through.

Other than Florida State which, in an effort to keep Bobby Bowden in the race for winningest major-college coach ever, is seemingly moving heaven and earth to try to persuade the NCAA to give back 15 wins it forced FSU to vacate does any school truly care about vacated wins? Yes, Oklahoma successfully appealed to get back some vacated wins emanating from the Rhett Bomar situation. But come on: I have to think Alabama officials were chortling when they heard the worst punishment for their major violations was having to vacate some wins.

Indeed, while Alabama AD Mal Moore said the school was considering an appeal, university president Robert Witt noted that the penalties "do not impact our future. They in no way affect the ability of our football team to compete fully without competitive disadvantage."

If the NCAA really wants to crack down on major violations, it will take away scholarships, take away TV money and take away the postseason.

When it comes to scholarships, don't take away three or four; take away eight or 10. Teams have a scholarship limit of 85, but coaches can live with 80 or so scholarship players. Once it gets down to 78 or 75, though, the pinch truly is felt.

As for TV bans, the NCAA has said those hurt opposing teams, which presumably have done nothing wrong and shouldn't be punished. That's true. Fine, let the offending team's games be televised, but don't give them a cut of a league's TV contract for the length of the probation.

In addition, ban offenders from the postseason and also prohibit them from any conference revenue-sharing from postseason appearances for the length of the probation.

In short, to paraphrase Witt, the NCAA should do something that would affect the ability of a football team to compete fully.

Grid bits
The fastest college football player in the nation this fall will be LSU tailback Trindon Holliday, who won the 100-meter dash in 10.0 seconds Friday night at the NCAA outdoor championships. Clemson wide receiver Jacoby Ford was the other football-playing finalist, but he pulled up at about 55 meters with a hamstring problem. The fastest player last season, going by the NCAA meet, was Florida running back Jeffrey Demps, who was injured and missed the meet this year. Washington State wide receiver Jeshua Anderson successfully defended his 400-meter hurdles title Friday.

Connecticut unveiled new jerseys last week, and part of the allure for the players is that the jerseys will be made of a cutting-edge stretch fabric. Senior punter Desi Cullen was one of the UConn "models," and he spoke glowingly about the fabric with the media afterward, saying it was "almost [like] kicking naked." Hey, kickers and punters can be out there, so maybe Cullen really has kicked naked before.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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